Friday, August 14, 2020

It takes a boat


I don't remember the first time I was in a boat, but it was likely one of the little wooden duck boats that Dad set me in before I was even old enough to go to school. I can't say what Mother had to say about taking a little kid out into a cold marsh in a tiny boat complete with wet dogs and loud shotguns, but in those days people took that sort of thing as normal. When we returned with ducks Mom would take out the instamatic for photos before I'd watch my dad pluck and gut the birds. The next night it was roast duck for dinner.

I was a little older when some of my fondest memories were of sliding those same boats across frosty leaves down to the water before sunup. Flashlights, retrievers, uncles and cousins. Even then the boat was tool: a transport, a means to get to were the fun would begin. Little thought was given to how it looked, how it handled, or even how comfortable it was. If it didn't leak and Dad could pile decoys, dog, and me with space for him to stand in back with a push pole it was all good.

All my life there's been a boat of some kind around. Never anything fancy – no party barges or ski-boats – just blue-collar craft to get us hunting or fishing.  There was the 10 foot pram when I was learning to trap muskrats and turtles and miraculously never swamped with the gear I overloaded on it. And there's the shallow 14 foot aluminum job that was built in the 1960's. Bench seats, camo paint, and a small motor. It sits in my yard today and doesn't see much use anymore.  A handful of canoes taught a lot about wind, water, and manual propulsion.                                  

Then the the present fishing boat: 16 feet long, pedestal seats, storage, and an outboard motor just big enough to get off a lake quickly if the weather turns bad with an electric trolling motor up front.. Still nothing fancy or impressive – there are many nicer boats out there – but a comfortable and simple way to get out and fish. If these boat have anything in common, it's the fact that they have a workman's purpose. Sometimes it's function over  form.             

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Fish Camp

There might be better places to wake up than in a tent alongside a remote northwoods river, but I couldn't think of one that morning. Camp was made after a day's float on Scott's raft, flycasting for muskies. There's a small campsite at the canoe put-in where we finished our day, complete with a table and fire ring and easy to drive to. We'd enjoyed the early summer sunshine and ducked under the hoods of rain jackets when several thunderstorms passed over. Every hour or so we took our turn at the oars and watched our partner cast. When we finally dragged the raft up the takeout, we'd layed eyes on nine muskies and boated three. I fell asleep recalling the events of the day and listening to Barred Owls calling back and forth across the river.

I'm not sure how much a big fish following your fly without touching it counts, but few are the muskie anglers who don't count it for something. I should have done something differently, I suppose, when a very large one stayed right behind my streamer almost to the boat but turned away when I started a figure-eight move. About the only thing we agreed I could have done was plunge my rod deep into the river to make the fly dive. That's fishing, of course, and there are more important things in my life that I probably should have done differently.

My highlight of the day was the 40+ incher that chased half-way to the boat and quit on it to return to it's hiding spot. Scott pulled oars against current so I cast back to the fish which broke a wake, a swirl and a take. I can't say what my first-second reaction was but I do know I gave it a couple of hard, arm length strip sets and the fish was hooked! Muskies don't generally make long runs but there was some give and take with this one. Like they say, the tug is the drug, and a pulsing deeply bent 10wt rod in hand is a heck of a fine feeling. It took some doing but ended up with me out of the raft standing in the shallows for a quick pose with a nice muskie.

It would have been nice to linger in camp and let the rising sun dry morning dew from the tent, but we'd planned to meet again 20 miles downstream for another day's float, so I put the coffee to boil and packed up a wet tent. Breakfast finished, I savored hot coffee, the smell of the outdoors, the view of an early morning river and the promises it would bring.

No, I couldn't think of a better place to be. I don't have the spring in my step that I used to have. My beard is gray and eyeglasses are standard equipment. A sore back is pretty much normal these days. But I've lived and hunted and fished in these northwoods for a long time and I'll never tire of it. Good Lord willing there'll be a long time ahead.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Wind from the east...

The weatherman forecast an east/southeasterly wind for all week. This could have been better news because the water I wanted to try would be tough to fly-cast in a strong east wind, not to mention that “fish bite the least” thing. A few days before I was early on a lake and enjoying the sunrise stillness but catching nothing along the shoreline I was casting to. The surface temp of the water read a cold 47-48 degrees, which I supposed kept the smallmouth down in the depths and mostly inactive. All too soon the wind picked up enough to form whitecaps so I put away the fly rod and moved the boat out to catch a few walleyes for the pan with spinning gear. I've caught walleyes with the fly rod before and I even tied a special streamer for them using a lock of my daughter's blond hair. The circumstances were just right and not something that can be counted on. Walleyes are typically a deeper water proposition and when I'm doing it I always have a fly rod in the boat and will aim for a shallow rocky shoreline when I see it.

I'd been looking at a particular bay for years. It's called a bay because it's apparently part of the larger lake it's connected to by a channel, but it would appear to be a little lake in it's own right. A third of a mile wide and a mile long, it lies near the end of a 15 mile twisted and hilly dirt road that I was in charge of maintaining during my working days. It always looked like pike water to me but I'd never fished it. There is a decent boat ramp on the north side and talking to some locals I heard it was, indeed, a shallow and weedy bay that was home to mostly waterfowl, beavers, and northern pike. Sounded good to me.

It was calm and the water glass smooth when I pushed my boat off the trailer. The sun was just breaking over the treetops and I figured I should have a couple of hours before that predicted east wind showed up. My plan was to target pike because John, a friend who guides south of here, has been posting photos of pike on social media and I figured to get in on the fun – so my two rods were rigged with streamers at the end of wire bite tippets. A foot-controlled trolling motor moved me along the shoreline as I fired casts towards the bank. A hundred yards from the landing, facing a sun that put a glare on the water even my polarized lens couldn't handle, I made out a swirl in the weeds and the fish had my fly! It wasn't the biggest pike I've ever seen but full of fight before I reached overboard with pliers to release it. A good start to a good day!

An osprey didn't agree with my method and showed me how it was done, hitting the water and coming up with a fish like it was easy. For the osprey it probably was. Three eagles put on an aerial show chasing each other around with swooshing wings and that chircking sound they make. A beaver slapped it's tail at me suggesting I go somewhere else. I turned to see a big pike roll the surface and flip it's tail clear before sliding under. Of course I fan-cast at it with no result. I hooked some others but nothing all that large. I missed some strikes, too. These pike know how to use their teeth and are hard on flies. About halfway around the bay my chartreuse/white streamer was pretty ragged looking with one eye missing and half the tail gone. The largest of the fish I caught hit thirty inches, but I saw two much bigger pike so I know they're in there. That last, and largest pike provided a neat take when I tossed a streamer to the outside edge of a bed of lily pads. The pads parted eight feet away and the wake to the fly nearly had me pulling it out of the water before the fish got to it. The ensuing fight had me believing it was a much larger fish than it turned out to be, taking line from the reel several times (I have a line cut on my finger) in it's short but powerful runs.

After I took the boat around the bay I steered it into the half-mile channel leading to the main lake. It was lunchtime by then and I was hungry. I'd earlier thought I'd fish a few hours and go home for lunch so I'd only brought my big insulated steel cup of coffee, which was long gone. But the day was too nice to stop then. Yes, I should know better by now. I can't remember all the times I've went out early for a couple hours fishing and ended up dodging deer in the twilight hours on the road home. 

There's enough depth in the channel to run the outboard motor but the ominous looking boulders just under the surface remind you to go slow and keep your boat in the middle. The wind picked up when I entered the lake but rather then coming out of the east, it was a west wind. I aimed the boat at a promising looking bay and minutes after starting the bow-mounted electric motor I was hooked up to a feisty smallmouth bass. The water temperature was warmer at 58-64 degrees in the rocky bay but only that one bass took the deerhair popper. The bass seemed to hold just off the rocky shelf in deeper water. As much as I prefer topwater bass fishing, my success increased when I switched to a weighted crawfish pattern and intermediate line.

The wind did switch around to the east and after hours casting and controlling the boat it became more of a chore than I wanted, so I just motored across the lake to another promising looking bay out of the wind where another nice bass was hooked minutes later. Perhaps it was my imagination after a long winter but this fish, too, fought strongly and felt bigger than it was. I also spotted a very nice campsite on the shore with a sandy boat landing – another benefit of exploring this new water, and a place to remember.

This spring I've tied up a number of deerhair poppers and some different style divers I'm eager to try. This corona virus thing has everyone confused about where to go, and when. There's a lot of water around here and local fishing is easy to come by, but I have some favored fishing holes several hours away. I've had to cancel one trip to Canada because of the closed border. The Covid cases are rising here in MN and there's a few cases reported not all that far from home, and these are younger folks. I can't blame the Canadians closing the border. I'm lucky to live a lifestyle where isolating is somewhat commonplace but still, it doesn't hurt to be careful. Whatever you think about it, whatever you believe, I hope you stay well. And good fishing!

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Winter grouse

Ruffed grouse are my favorite game bird during hunting season and I love where and how they live throughout the year. I often see their snow roosts during my snowshoe hikes and when I spotted this one I had my camera at hand. The bird jumped in an explosion of snow and I missed that shot, but was able to get a decent photo of it's departure. I hope to hear him drumming before too long. Interesting stuff.

Winter continues here, but there's a promise of Spring in the air. The last three days have seen melting temperatures and though it's too early to believe Winter isn't going to give us another blast, we're all hoping it won't.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

A cup and a book

When it was light enough to see our thermometer hanging below the bird feeder the needle pointed at 20 below zero this morning. It wasn't much of a surprise – the TV weatherman said it would be cold – so I kinda' figured it would be an indoor day. Oh, I had some chores to do outside but it wasn't long before I settled into my chair with a book and a mug of coffee. I might be old-fashioned but I believe a good book is one of the finest, and under-rated pleasures a man can have. So while the sunlight cut the frigid air and warmed me through the window I settled in as comfortable as could be.

There have been a couple of books I've read cover to cover in one or two sittings but they weren't very long and they weren't very good. I'm mostly a slow reader and if it's something I enjoy I'll often stop at a sentence, paragraph, or passage just to turn away and think it over. I may have been reminded of something or somewhere I've been, something I'd like to do, or maybe something to learn. A good book takes me a long time to read and there can be a ting of disappointment when I'm on the final pages. The similarities to a fishing trip are obvious, sure, I need to finish it but I hate to see it end. A good book should be sipped, not gulped.

Bookmarks are handy and I make mine from birch bark. A couple layers of the thicker stuff under the white papery sheet, a bit of glue and maybe a little design added. A tail feather from a grouse works, too, as does about any scrap of paper but I enjoy making them and we all have our quirks. For awhile I was burning a bass figure on them and passing 'em out on our fishing trips. The thin bookmarks are more functional than the wooden things (I don't know what to call them) I make now, but the wood will likely last longer and my fishing friends like them. Capt Jack has a couple of the wooden ones hanging from his rear-view mirror that click together on rough roads, which can be either irritating or delightful, depending on your perspective.

So I sat in the morning sun and read a chapter on pike fishing. Up here they're called “northerns” by the locals and I've lately been thinking about fly fishing for them. Pike fishing is fun. They are wild and hit violently. There's an air of danger about them. They're toothy and hard on flies and leaders. Big ones are awesome impressive predators; two footers fight hard and taste good if you wanna' keep 'em. Little ones, the hammer handles... well, they're kind of a pain, but they miss your fly as often as they hit it. Like everything else, some folk just don't like pike. Suit yourself. 

Winter is just getting started so it'll be awhile before there's any fly fishing around here. The lake and rivers are frozen and there's about three feet of snow on the ground. It's cold out and I can't think of a better thing to do than relax with a cup of hot coffee and a book.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

nowhere to go

Yesterday's TV news was focused on the weather: winter storms racing across the country. Here in Minnesota they showed cars and buses sliding out of control on paved roads covered with glare ice. Over 300 crashes reported in less the five hours, and still counting. Kids were ice skating on the streets and sidewalks. State Patrol banned tow trucks from going out. Dangerous stuff.

Up here the storm didn't hit until late last night. It was just starting to snow when I hit the sack. This morning the storm continues. I've nowhere to go and I'm happy about that. Our electric power is still on, but the generator in the garage is gassed up just in case.

I was sitting in my front room chair trying to read but was constantly distracted by the blowing snow outside. The strong wind is swirling around, one minute from west, then from the east. It's nearly 30 degrees and there's an icy sleet mixed in. From my corner of the cozy front room I listened to the sleet peppering against the windows. Our Christmas tree is still lit and all is quiet but for the wind.

Sitting at this keyboard I can look over at my beckoning fly tying vise and will likely put it to use later. The coffee is delicious, I can smell bacon frying, and I'm happy knowing the cupboards are stocked. I can, and probably will, stay here for days and go outside only to move snow, hike on snowshoes and ski.

Some folks have to travel on days like this. I used to, but these days I'm grateful for the peaceful pleasure of easing back and watching it snow. Stay safe and Happy New Year.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

time for snowshoes

It seems like we were just wondering where the heck October went when we turned around to see November is gone, too. Deer season came with a little snow and we (Gabby and I, at least) were hopeful of getting into some of the local covers for grouse when deer season ended. More snow came, however, along with some rain that ended up putting an thin abrasive crust over 8 inches of snow and adding a layer of ice to our sidewalks here at home. Hard walking and harder on dog feet – I pretty much gave up on dog boots long ago – so we all but called it a season. I haven't yet put the shotgun away, but I have taken the extra hunting clothes and sleeping bag out of my truck.

Just after Thanksgiving came the storm that caused headaches across the country. It didn't bother us much though, a few hours moving snow and now it appears winter is here. Yesterday morning I woke to minus 10 degrees. I'm happy not to go anywhere, at least by automobile, though I went to town four days ago to get dog food and seed for the birds. Other than that my travel has been by foot, ski, and snowshoe.

One of the neat things about snow is all the life it reveals. Every morning we see new deer tracks crossing the yard and a short snowshoe hike out back shows where the weasel (now an ermine) has hunted for mice; a fox criss-crossed the meadow; a grouse marched behind the kennel; snowshoe hares and squirrels racing around; a couple of bucks rubs and deer beds.

Last spring I bought a pair of the new style metal framed snowshoes. The April crust of snow made woods travel easy, and on snowshoes you could explore almost anywhere on the basically flat smooth surface hardly leaving a track. Trouble came for me on the hills, however, as my good old wood and rawhide snowshoes could find no purchase on the harder layer of snow. Going uphill I could sometimes punch my toe into the snow to climb, but downhills felt like I had an out-of-control toboggan on each foot. The snow wouldn't hold my weight without snowshoes, but I didn't need the flotation of the near 5-foot long Alaskans.

After some research, I purchased a pair from a small local sports shop. I looked at cheaper models but the the ones I picked are made next door in Wisconsin by a company that employs folks living with some kind of disability. I like that.

My new shoes were just the ticket, light weight and shorter to maneuver through the woods, the crampons underneath bite the snow for great traction going up or down. They might be a little racy looking for my tastes, but at least if I'm looking for them they're easy to spot. I won't abandon my traditional snowshoes, not by a long shot, but when conditions are right I'll be wearing the new style. Another season is here. Enjoy!


Sunday, November 24, 2019

Where'd October go?

It's always a bonus for a grouse hunter when you find a new good looking cover to explore, and if it's close to home it's even better. This fall I'd taken to driving down to the gun club on Sunday afternoons mostly to sit around with the folks in the clubhouse and talk about hunting, guns, dogs, fishing and most anything else that anyone brought up. There's always plenty of coffee and some kind of baked goods to munch on. Some of the guys show up without their gun, just for the company of like-minded friends. There'll be a few lady shooters, too, and some non-shooting gals with their spouses that bring the best of the eats. Now and then the outdoor grill is fired up and you don't wanna' be late for that. Sometime during the afternoon you go out and see what you can do about breaking some clay pigeons.

It was bird season, October, so I asked a few of the guys about some young aspen cutting just across the road from the club's entrance. It looked choice for woodcock to me. JW said he'd been in there a year or two before and found nothing but tough walking, though, he allowed, he didn't have a dog. The next week I brought Gabby along to hunt that cover before the club opened. In twenty minutes a limit of woodcock had fallen to my gun, and Gabs pointed several more before I could steer her back to the truck. A nice little honey hole. This across the road from where, once a week, a couple dozen wing-shooting enthusiasts gather. Not that I'd care to see that little cover shot out, but I sort of wondered why it hadn't been.

The gun club is 30 miles or so south of my home in a direction I seldom go except for the skeet shooting, but years ago I worked in a gravel pit operation near there and recalled exploring a narrow forest road that wound through the woods and connected two county gravel roads. I don't remember it being anything special then, but it seemed like a good idea to check it out again. Turns out we found a prime grouse covert.

Old logging roads are magnets for ATVs, though I was surprised at how little this trail into beautiful grouse cover was used – just enough traffic to knock the grass down but not enough to rut up the wet spots. Plus, there were no signs of birds being cleaned at the trailhead by thoughtless gunners leaving the remains scattered about, which I've seen too often. Gabby was spinning circles while I tried to calm her down to slip her bell collar on, and before I could get my gun out she'd darted into the cover and was on point fifty feet from the truck. A nice woodcock find that promised a good start. 

I've enjoyed many dogs over the years and I'm always impressed to see their enthusiasm and eagerness during the quest for game but, and perhaps it's age catching up with me, more than ever I appreciate the pure joy and delight a bird dog takes in it's mission. Sometimes I wonder if I hunt birds just to make a dog happy.

I like bird cover like this. Mostly flat on that soft autumn smelling soil under leaves we kick up. Absent are the ankle breaking rocky holes found in so many of the covers I hunt to the north. Other than the close growing aspen trunks the only real hazards are scattered rotting slash piles that are easily avoided. There's a sprinkling of birch and maple trees just 'cause they're pretty and a few runs of dark green balsam spread around to add some color and provide rainy day cover for the grouse. Leg grabbing hazel, dogwood, and buck brush add habitat. A focused gunner with a fast dog could cover most of this in an hour – as it was, Gabby and I took a little longer. A weekend morning later in October without a hint of any other hunters around. Perfect. We found a half dozen ruffs and 4 or 5 woodcock during that first visit. I didn't get shots at all of them but that's grouse hunting. You can bet this place is on my list!

There's that old saying, beware the man with only one gun. I'd probably be deadlier if I followed that advice and stuck to one gun, myself. I'm fortunate to have, in my opinion, two nice grouse guns. One is a 100-plus year old American made double gun. It came to me in a rare (for me) gun trade. I don't know it's history but somewhere along the lines I like to believe it was owned by a grouse hunter. It's tighter chokes were bored to throw the wider patterns we use in the grouse woods and I hope whoever used this gun before me was following a bird dog. When I carry it, it is indeed, my favorite.

I bought the other gun new, though that was quite a few years ago, now. A well known foreign made over/under with screw-in choke tubes. It's light and fast despite the 29 ½ inch barrels. I couldn't leave it alone so I stripped the finish and hand-rubbed many coats of oil into the stock and added a pad for length. When in my hands, it is of course, my favorite.

 Both guns shoot just slightly high of center like a bird gun should. If I handle them the way they should be handled there will be grouse on the grill. Ruffed grouse, bird dogs, and shotguns are why we wish October could last forever.